Michael Scuse, acting undersecretary of food and agriculture for the USDA, addresses last year's International Food Aid & Development Conference in June 2011 in Kansas City, Mo. (USDAgov/Flickr)
The U.S. created its food aid program more than 50 years ago in part to alleviate surpluses in U.S. agricultural commodities. Though surpluses aren’t a persistent issue today, world hunger has only become a more acute problem.
The challenge for governments, aid agencies and recipient countries is to create a collaborative food aid system that accommodates both the needs of the U.S. agriculture industry and growing food insecurity among a mushrooming population.
Almost 10 million people will be served by U.S. food assistance programs this year, according to Michael Scuse, an acting undersecretary of food and agriculture for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The USDA and the U. S. Agency for International Development sponsored an international conference on food aid, "From Harvest to Basket: Weaving Together Agricultural Markets and Food Security" this week in Kansas City, Mo.
Scuse told conference attendees that two of the government’s largest programs, known as Food for Progress and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition programs, are key to creating food security for a world population expected to top 9 billion by 2050.
Administering the programs is challenging, though, and critics say politics too often gets in the way of delivering food economically and effectively.
One international aid agency, Oxfam America, tried to illustrate the problem with what it called a “visualization” at its booth in an exhibit hall at the Westin Crown Center, where the conference was held Tuesday and Wednesday. Two actors donned a donkey and elephant’s head and sat across from one another over a game table, playing a stacking game with cobs of corn. The idea they were trying to convey: the government (both Democrats and Republicans) is “playing” with food for food aid.
Oxfam’s Director of Regional Advocacy, Jim French, said programs that require the United States to sell commodities overseas to fund development projects are sometimes more costly than simply donating cash to needy communities.
Rather than forcing agencies to use food aid buying U.S. commodities and reselling them overseas, French said, “(It) might be better, simply, to take that money, allow it to be dispersed to agencies doing development projects."
Laws governing food procurement and freight also can add to the cost of U. S. food aid. Politicians debating the 2012 Farm Bill are looking at some of the laws, including those that require U.S commodities to be shipped on U.S. vessels. Critics claim large maritime interests and multinational agriculture corporations influence food aid legislation.
Lisa Kuennen-Asfaw, with Catholic Relief Services, said government programs often end up losing money.
"Why would you take food from the U.S. all the way across the world somewhere and sell it on a market over there? Very often you’re selling it at less than what it costs to get it there," Kuennen-Asfaw said.
Critics also claim selling U.S commodities overseas can adversely affect local markets, undermining the ability of local farmers to make a profit on locally grown crops.
Patricia Sheik, deputy administrator of the USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service, maintains that the government is diligent about assessing local markets. She says the problems are complex and food aid programs need flexibility.
For example, she said, providing food aid in exchange for work is sometimes the best way to use U.S. programs. Depending on the situation, selling U.S. foods to development agencies is the best course, while sometimes, Sheik said, donating food outright is what is needed.
The U.S. agriculture industry is part of a global market. With a booming global population, the industry will need to continue to look for innovative solutions to the challenges of feeding the world, in concert with both government agencies and food aid programs.